Shadowplay: Simulated Illumination in Game Worlds

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It has long been a commonplace in gaming communities that "good graphics does not equal good gameplay." This sentiment is amplified in the title of a Game Developers Conference 2003 presentation "Great game graphics . . . Who cares?" Originally growing partly out of resistance to hardware industry agendas, this platitude has, in extreme expressions, ossified into a simple and ultimately less-than-useful dichotomy. But given the capacity to dynamically engage the senses that is inherent in interactive media, a better question for us to pose is "what sort of visual experiences best support gameplay?" One way to approach this rather large question is to focus upon our experience of simulated illumination in gaming environments. For, despite skepticism towards game graphics, the fact is that there are currently a number of very enjoyable games in which light plays a key role. In "Thief 2"and ""Silent Hill 3"," categorized as "first person sneaker" and "survival/horror" games, respectively, a consideration of light can be found not only in the way in which the game spaces are illuminated, but also in the sensorium that is encoded into the game’s AI. In this sense, both players and non-playing characters respond to illumination decisions made by game designers and the gamers themselves. But before we investigate illumination decisions further, it is necessary to create a framework for analyzing the contribution of simulated illumination to the gaming experience. Quite clearly, we lack a vocabulary with which to speak and think about light in games and the effect upon the player. This paper will argue that a foundational understanding for studying lighting design in game environments can be forged by first surveying existing illumination practices. Pre-rendered 3d computer animation is created using similar digital tools, and the field has begun to develop it own form of cinematography. But the free navigation afforded by games requires us to look to other practices outside of filmic media, such as architectural lighting. Finally, games as interactive experiences must be examined for their own unique potentials. After all, in a game the player sees and is seen, illuminates and is illuminated in turn. The possibilities to manipulate light both as media convention and as sensory phenomenon, within an interactive environment of growing visual richness, makes game lighting one of the most intriguing areas of future design practice. I will begin by contending that it makes sense, from both a game development and research perspective, to consider simulated illumination as an independent element of the gaming experience. Whether one is a programmer or digital artist working at a game company, or a gamer using a level editor to produce something for their own enjoyment, there is a cluster of design decisions around the problem of light that can be made well or poorly. Light contributes powerfully to the "gameplay gestalt," defined by Craig Lindley as "a particular way of thinking about the game state from the perspective of a player, together with a pattern of repetitive perceptual, cognitive, and motor operations." (Lindley, 2002) Finally, if we hope that games might touch the same profound places that dreams do, I believe that illumination has an important role to play. We must, however, consider digital games not just as a repository for existing lighting practices, but also as a forum from which unique contributions to aesthetic expression can emerge. One of the most interesting experiences I have had in "Thief" 2" is the development of a kind of self-reflexive awareness about illumination. The degree to which one is present in light or darkness in a scene strongly affects one’s fortunes in the game, and is fed back to the player through the "glowing crystal" in the interface. This dynamic awareness is radically different from watching a movie, and even has the capacity to alter one’s sensitivity to illumination after one leaves the game. The contribution from the interface engages the player in the sort of "double consciousness" of the game as both mediated and directly felt that is, according to Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, one of the most promising areas of future game development. (Salen and Zimmerman, 2004). Illumination decisions in games take many forms, are made by both designers and players, and have strategic and tactical consequences for the game experience. But whether one is seeking to evoke a world or set up the conditions for perception and interaction, light allows us to advance our goals for the felt game experience, be they the evocation of suspense, dread, comfort or ecstatic abandon. Light engages us through our bodies, our nervous systems. Digital games, in which light is made present through a combination of media conventions, computer graphics algorithms and sensory phenomena, thus represent an arena in which the aesthetics of light and the mechanics of perception are open for exploration and redefinition by designers and players alike. References: Lindley, Craig (2002). "The Gameplay Gestalt" in CGDC Conference Proceedings, Tampere, Finland. Salen, K. and Eric Zimmerman (2004) Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. MIT Press, Cambridge MA.

Contact: Simon Niedenthal, School of Arts and Communication (K3), Malmö University,
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Conference presentation
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